Watching the watchers


If you went to a school where you were subjected to years of Latin, or are a Star Trek: the Next Generation enthusiast, you will be familiar with the phrase, “Who watches the watchers?” Though Juvenal was decrying the corruptibility of men guarding their masters’ wives, his line is now used to refer to that quality in government—no comment on the evolution of the phrase. The problem of how to ensure government accountability is older than Juvenal, and sadly perpetual. Two recent stories on the Internet and police misconduct raise interesting questions about how technology might be used to guard the guardsmen in the modern era. Might we finally be getting it right?

First to cross my radar screen was a Telegraph article on a Merseyside Police scandal. Merseyside had 152 breaches of the Data Protection Act in 2009, an act that limits police access to information on private individuals. Most of the violations appear to have been the result of voyeuristic interest in Steven Gerrard’s affray charges, though there were a fair few private investigations into daughters’ boyfriends.

That we know of this is encouraging. It shows that the Freedom of Information Act, under which the breach statistics were released, is doing some of its job. It also shows that technology can make it easier to identify government wrongdoing; login information leaves a paper trail. The flip side, of course, is that technology in the form of databases makes all manner of unscrupulousness easier. Beyond waiting for professional standards departments to uncover misconduct and release it via the Freedom of Information Act, though, the Internet also offers citizens the opportunity to monitor police activity on their own. A piece from the Atlantic presents iPhone apps like “OpenWatch” and “CopRecorder” as story sources “for investigative reporting in an age when newsrooms are shrinking.” This may be one of their merits. The more obvious is their capacity to help keep the police honest.

CopRecorder has already been downloaded by over 50,000 users, and has spawned a webpage to which anyone can upload audio and video files of police encounters. The cynical take is that the chance of catching something truly horrendous is infinitesimal. That’s fair, but the likelihood without such programmes is much smaller. OpenWatch improves upon camcorders by allowing users to record and immediately upload files on a device to which most of us are conjoined, our mobiles. The Internet is a tool, and ultimately is what we make of it. Some police officers will abuse it, but misconduct is nothing new. More exciting are innovations that finally let the public counter-survey authority figures. Watching the watchers, indeed.